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August 24, 2009

Virtual Reality Fires up Research Efforts

Researchers team up with fire experts to place homeowners in virtual wildfires

Much of the time, scientific discovery is the result of knowledge and meticulous planning. Every so often, serendipity plays a part.

The Media Convergence Laboratory (MCL) at the University of Central Florida seems to have an abundance of all three. It's a place where engineers and artists combine their know-how for video games, virtual reality and a variety of military and commercial products. But there's now a much wider array of researchers discovering the benefits of this lab's toolbox.

"The whole idea for the forest fire project came because people from another discipline were walking through our lab and realizing that we have technology to solve problems that they have," said Charles Hughes, director of MCL and professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

The Forest Fire project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), blends three seemingly unrelated disciplines: psychology, computer science and economics.

The aim is to find out if a virtual reality presentation of wildfires might influence local residents to invest in prescribed burns and other protective efforts.

Multidisciplinary effort

"What we came up with was a blending of different approaches," said Stephen Fiore, director of UCF's Cognitive Sciences Laboratory at the Institute for Simulation and Training.

"From psychology, you have the study of expertise and decision making. From computer science, you have virtual reality simulations of real world context. And, from economics, you have environmental policy and decision making. We had a unique opportunity to combine these," explained Fiore, who is also a professor with the UCF Department of Philosophy.

Professor Elisabet Rutström specializes in experimental economics. She is working with local residents who are viewing the wildfire visualization.

"I give them some money up front and say, 'You can use this money to pay for a prescribed burn and, if the house doesn't burn, I will pay you an amount of money to buy it back at the end,' so there are real economic incentives," said Rutström. "We found that virtual reality software had a significant impact on the accuracy of people's perception of the risk."

To make their wildfire visualization as real as possible, the researchers worked closely with local fire experts.

"I was trying to make sure they depicted wildfires as accurately as possible," said Wil Kitchings of the Florida Division of Forestry. "I was interested, really, to see what kind of things went into it, as far as weather parameters and landscapes."

"They came to us as experts on vegetative communities in Florida and on the visual component of the program that they were building," said Alaina Bernard, land manager for UCF. She helped the researchers learn about "prescribed burning and wildfire vernacular."

Nature and problem solving

Fiore said the merging of disciplines is necessary to tackle the complex medical, social and environmental problems the world faces.

"One of my favorite quotes is, 'The way nature has divided up its problems is not the same way universities have divided up their departments,'" said Fiore. "If you want to solve problems in the real world, you need to take a multidisciplinary approach, look at it from different lenses, and try to more fully illuminate that problem."

Rutström said working with different departments has been eye-opening.

"We all thought in the beginning that this was so easy, we divided up the tasks, we structured our environment and we all went off to our individual offices and closed the door and started working," she said. "And then we met again and it turned out we hadn't done at all what the other person thought we were going to do! So, it took us awhile before we understood each other."

Additional applications

Virtual reality and mixed reality (the blending of virtual content with real content) are now being used in a wide range of scientific applications, including a growing number of medical therapies.

"We received an NSF grant to use mixed reality for physical rehabilitation of patients following debilitating strokes," said Hughes.

Programs have been designed to help individuals build up physical strength after strokes or brain injuries. Some of those applications still require the classic "head mounted devices" associated with virtual reality, but that hardware is getting cheaper and smaller. Commodity 3-D glasses are beginning to replace the large, bulky headgear. That, said Hughes, could make these tools available for therapists, doctors and rehab centers.

Also at the MCL is "The Everglades Project," another NSF-funded effort that looks at how technology can enhance museum exhibits.

"A museum isn't compulsory learning; nobody tells me I have to go and I have to learn this," said Eileen Smith, associate director of the MCL. "It's free choice, so you have to look at, 'How do we use the technology so that it has the desired learning impact on the target audience?'"

Some of the exhibits in the Everglades project will offer multi-touch technology, which is somewhat like using two fingers to enlarge or decrease the size of text or photos on an iPhone®, but on a bigger scale. The project, "Water's Journey Through the Everglades," opens at the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale in about 18 months.

"Museums, if they do their job, never satisfy learning," said Smith. "They inspire you to always want to learn more."

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.